It’s no simple task to let a loved one mourn on her own―especially if that person is your daughter.

By Karen Joy Fowler
Updated December 02, 2009
Anna Williams

My daughter Shannon e-mailed us from Europe. “I can’t do the holidays this year,” she said. None of us were in the mood. So 2002 was our year with no Christmas.

On December 23, I left my husband, son, and daughter-in-law in California and flew to meet Shannon in Madrid. On the 25th, we walked around the city. Almost nothing was open. We saw gardens, churches, and the outsides of museums. That night, we took pictures of Christmas lights but avoided all mention of the day.

It had been four long months since I had seen my daughter. On August 9, her boyfriend had been killed as they vacationed in Thailand. He’d been stung by a box jellyfish when they were swimming in the ocean. He had walked out of the water, collapsed on the beach, and died a few minutes later. One week earlier, they had sent me a joint e-mail announcing their engagement. He was 25 years old.

No one was home when she called. I was teaching. My husband was on his commute. She called twice, left two messages. They were still on the machine when I got home. “I didn’t know if you’d want to listen,” my husband said. “But I strongly advise you never do.”

Over the next few days, he and I talked incessantly about flying to Thailand. There were two impediments. The first was logistical. Shannon was on the island of Koh Phangan, waiting for Sean’s body to be released, which could happen at any time. It would take us so long to get there that she said she would be gone before we arrived.

The second was emotional. Shannon didn’t want us. On the rare occasions we could get her on the phone, she said so―vehemently: “Honestly, Mum, what can you possibly do that will make this even a tiny bit better? I don’t want you here. Don’t come.”

I was surprised. Shannon and I have always been very close. In my whole life, nothing so bad had ever happened as to make me not want my mother. But in my whole life, nothing so bad had ever happened.

Four days passed. My husband and I continued to fret that we should be in Thailand with Shannon and continued not to go. Ten days later, we flew to Sean’s hometown, Melbourne, Australia, for his funeral. Shannon neither encouraged nor discouraged this. We met his family and tried not to intrude on their heartbreak. They were warm and welcoming, but I was very aware of our position as the lucky parents whose child had not died. Shannon had told us that she had felt the jellyfish graze her leg before it wrapped around Sean’s. Seven years later, I can hardly bear to think about his mother.

In Melbourne, Shannon seemed glad to see us but also kept her distance, preferring the company of the people who had loved Sean most, his family and friends. When she returned to California, she found she couldn’t stand to be there and quickly took off again.

I got a crash course in the things well-meaning people say but shouldn’t: I know what you’re going through. You’re so strong; I’d just curl up and die. You’re young and beautiful; you’ll find love again. God has a plan.

So many wrong things to say, and so few right.

In the days before she left, I got a good look at my daughter. She couldn’t sleep and hardly ate. She was suffering from post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt and was sometimes angry, sometimes paralyzed with grief.

I had my own irrational guilt. I’m her mother; it’s my job to keep her safe. Clearly I hadn’t done my job. I hadn’t even been home when she called.

I couldn’t tell her I was devastated. Shannon resented any implication that we shared this tragedy, as if I were trying to take him from her. “You hardly knew him,” she said, which was true. Their relationship had happened in Europe, Australia, and China; he had come only once to visit us in California. But I had known they would marry long before they made it official. In my heart, he was family. For months I couldn’t go to sleep at night unless I fantasized about some impossible way of saving him. And beyond the loss of him, her grief was more than I could endure.

“When she has her own children, she’ll understand,” my friends told me, but they were solving the wrong problem. I never doubted that my relationship with Shannon would be fine. What I wanted was a way to help her. But she was somewhere emotionally that I couldn’t even imagine. Honestly, Mum, what can you possibly do that will make this even a tiny bit better?

Death being like nothing so much as death, I found myself thinking of my mother’s. I had gone to be with her, but at the end she hardly seemed to know I was there. I talked to her doctor, admitting that, childishly, I had expected even then to be my mother’s top concern. I had expected her to help me through the impossible task of losing her. “She can’t be your mother right now,” the doctor had said. “She’s too busy dying.”

I applied that to Shannon. She can’t be your daughter right now, I told myself. She’s too busy surviving.

Shannon left California to backpack alone through Eastern Europe for as long as her money lasted. In the old days, she would have asked for my advice about this. She usually asked for my advice, though seldom took it. This plan to travel alone terrified me. I had seen that she was near collapse and often past it. I was afraid she wouldn’t be careful; she seemed to think Sean’s death had proved there was no point to precautions―whatever would happen, would happen. I was afraid we would rarely hear from her, that I would spend days not knowing how or where she was.

Thankfully, she did e-mail often. And when she agreed to meet me in Madrid, I was grateful, desperate to see her, but nervous. I still hadn’t figured out how to be the mother through something like this. Our time together in Spain was both wonderful and terrible. Shannon is an experienced traveler and speaks Spanish; I do not. I often felt clumsy and intrusive. Sometimes I said the right thing and sometimes the wrong.

With Christmas over, we moved on to the challenges of New Year’s. We spent it in Seville, where the only room available was genuinely squalid. We hadn’t known that the restaurants would close and, as a result, had hardly eaten all day. At midnight, we were in a square crowded with people. Men kept trying to pick up my daughter even though I was right there and she couldn’t have been less interested. Bottles of Champagne were passed from mouth to mouth, smashed on the pavement when empty. There was broken glass everywhere, and someone was knifed. I spent the whole night on the edge of hysteria.

One image from that night remains particularly vivid. It’s after midnight; Shannon and I have returned to our ghastly lodgings. There, by a window in the hallway, is a young woman eating alone. Champagne in a bucket, candles on the table. By candlelight, the crumbling hallway is gothic. The table is set for one. At the time, I saw this woman―who looked so much like my daughter―as an emblem of loss, of loneliness. Many months passed before I realized that she also signified resilience.

We got through it all: the holidays, the trip, and the seven years that followed. Sean will always be in our hearts, and my daughter will never get over his death, and I will never be any help to her with it. That’s just the way it is.

Shannon is in a good place right now. She’s writing a memoir about her time in Eastern Europe. Fortunately, I know something about writing books. I have good advice and valuable experience to draw on, as sometimes I will. I no longer feel that it’s my job to protect her from all bad things; I’ve seen too clearly that I can’t.

She is my daughter and the only expert on the way to live her life. I am her mother, with all the love and limitations that implies.

Click here to read Shannon Leone Fowler’s essay about her fiancé’s death.